The life and times of the Atari ST series - Malcolm Ramage

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The life and times of the Atari ST series - Malcolm Ramage

Post by exxos » Mon Dec 11, 2017 11:16 am

PART 1:

In the beginning...

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The birth of the ST came about in a time of strife, the Tramiel family had effectively been ejected from the company they founded (Commodore), and the head of the family Jack, wanted revenge. With a small band of loyal staff that followed him from Commodore they founded Tramiel Technologies in 1984, and among this small band of technologists was former Commodore employee Shiraz Shivji, who was given the task of designing a new computer based around the National Semiconductor NS32032 processor chip.

There were problems though, Tramiel Technologies had no distribution arm, no production or storage facilities and for a company that was effectively coming into a market considered by many to be closed to all newcomers (Remember that by this time, many computer companies had come and gone and the console crash was still in full swing at this time), getting access to these facilities for an unknown company was going to be pretty difficult. With this in mind, Jack Tramiel started looking to acquire a technology company or a distribution company to get his new product into the hands of consumers, once it was available.

By sheer coincidence, Warner were wanting to get rid of the home computer section of Atari, the reason for this was that with the console crash and the bottom falli9ng out of the home computer market, Atari's computer division was pushing Warner into the red financially, losing over two million dollars a day, which was a huge amount of money in 1984. When Jack Tramiel came calling after hearing Warner wanted to sell, talks were swift and Atari was sold to Tramiel Technologies in late 1984. Jack was a shrewd businessman, as part of the deal he had also negotiated a loan from Warner, which was to be paid back over 5 years.

In the meantime, the hardware design was becoming finalized, though the processor had been changed to the Motorola MC68000 after fears that National Semiconductor would not be able to supply enough processors to supply a production machine, also RAM prices were beginning to fall, so the machine was to have 2 models, a low end 128K machine and a higher end 256K machine. With the news filtering through the company that they had acquired their former rival Atari, Ira Valenski was given the task of designing a series of cases to give the range of computers to be supplied by the new Atari Corporation, including the as yet unannounced Atari ST.

With the paperwork completed and Atari now owned by Tramiel Technologies, Jack and his team started going through Atari's books and started cutting the company down to a more manageable size. Some estimates put the staff cuts at about 70%, but there are no doubts that many talented people were lost and as a result, the ST may not have been the machine it could have been. In and among the projects under development at Atari were 2 machines based on the Motorola MC68000, these were codenamed Gaza and Sierra and were in advanced prototyping stages and both had custom chips which were more advanced than anything in the ST.

Sadly these machines were overlooked, mainly due to a deal being negotiated with Amiga Technologies at the time of the takeover involving the prototypes and technology of the machine that would become the Amiga. Jack Tramiel had also been in discussion with the company before acquiring Atari, and while he expressed an interest in the technology, he did not want to take on the staff and as a result, Amiga Technologies went elsewhere to try and get their technology into production.

As part of the deal with Atari, a loan had been granted to continue development of the Lorraine chipset with a condition attached, the loan had to be paid back before a specified date or the technology ownership would default to Atari to do with as they pleased. Jack tried to put pressure on Amiga Technologies by dropping the offer for the company and its technology, but in an unusual twist of fate, Amiga Technologies was bought by Commodore for more money than was initially asked for, and in addition, the loan was paid back to Atari with literally hours to spare. Jack Tramiel was furious and ordered design of his machine to be completed as soon as possible, meaning that technology that could have enhanced it was overlooked, including the legendary AMY sound chip.

There was no operating system, so Atari started looking around and were approached by Microsoft, who offered to port their operating system to the new Atari platform, but as Microsoft were still a long way from finishing their operating system Atari decided to look elsewhere (And anyone who has seen or used Windows version 1 will know it was a wise decision and a lucky escape), and discovered Digital Research, who were developing an operating system called Crystal. Atari sent a group of programmers to Digital Research to port Crystal to the ST and the Graphic Environment Manager (G.E.M.) was born. Running over a port of CPM renamed Tramiel Operating System (T.O.S.), the fledgling Atari ST now had an operating system.

In 1985 Atari showed a revised range of 8 bit computers in a re-designed case at the ComDEX show, which appeared to be a hit, but in a corner there was something new. On a table in a booth just away from the main exhibits was a prototype 130ST, but as the hardware had not been finished and would not fit within the case, the case was empty, except for a huge connecting cable, connecting the hardware to the mouse and monitor via the case. Demonstrations were limited as the system was prone to crashing, but people were impressed, even more so at the price when compared to its nearest rival, the Apple Macintosh.

Due to the exhibition, Atari realised that 128K was not enough as the operating system was going to take up more space than that, so the minimum spec was raised to 256K before fate once again stepped in. RAM prices fell once again and it was no more expensive to fit 512K of memory, so at the last minute the minimum specification was raised, however many 260ST badges had been created and some 256K machines had been shipped to developers to create software before the machines launch.

In June 1985 the ST launched in Europe, and many people were amazed to see the newly adopted MIDI ports on the side of the machine. Many people initially ignored these as unless you were a keyboard player, you had no real use for them, but the 260ST was now out and available for public consumption, and unbeknown to many was about to play an important role in music production.
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Re: The life and times of the Atari ST series - Malcolm Ramage

Post by exxos » Mon Dec 11, 2017 11:18 am

PART 2:

Growing pains...

It was now 1985 and the ST was available to buy and as far as the rest of the world was concerned, this new wonder machine had been designed and built in around 6 months, though in reality it had been a little over 12 months in development, but even that is a quick turnaround from design to completion. Trouble was that Atari knew what was coming from Commodore as they had the hardware in the lab as the Amiga was snatched from their grasp. While Atari had a price (And memory) advantage over the Amiga, they still had to innovate to keep themselves in the public's mind once Commodores new Amiga launched.

One suggestion was to use the AMY chip in a higher end ST so that it could act as a synthesizer as well as control other synthesizers with the built in MIDI ports, as this chip was also going to be in the 8 bit 65XEM machine, this seemed like a logical step, however during the Tramiels takeover of Atari, the development staff behind this revolutionary chip had been fired, and none of the remaining staff knew how to program the chip beyond the technical demo's that already existed. Other than the 65XEM prototype and a mention in some design notes for an enhanced ST, the AMY chip was quietly dropped from Atari's portfolio and sold to another company.

Shiraz Shivji was working on some advanced idea's for a next generation ST and had started noting down designs and idea's which he hoped to incorporate, while remaining compatible with the existing machine. As the man who effectively created the machine, no one knew how the hardware worked as well as he did. It was a great blow then to the Atari design team when he left the company in 1987, with the design for the new Enhanced ST far from complete. This did not however stop Atari from enhancing the existing ST design.

The original ST had its power supply and floppy disk drive separate from the system, which made the average setup quite messy with several large thick connectors and at least 3 power plugs needed for computer, floppy drive and monitor. TV modulators were added (The STm) and the floppy drive integrated into the system box on the 1040 (The STf), before the 520 eventually had both the TV Modulator and floppy drive integrated into a single case (The STfm). Some early concepts for this design had the floppy drive on the left side of the case with the name badge saying STd, though a quick check on the name STd lead to a quick renaming of the machine.

While the ST series was popular in Europe, it was quite hard to find a retailer in Atari's home country which stocked the machine. To try and remedy this, Atari bought a department retail chain in 1988 to get the whole Atari range within reach of the average customer in the United States, but while they had products and now a distribution chain, they didn't seem to spend any more money on advertising. Also as Atari were known more for the video game industry of old, many people did not consider the ST a serious machine for business. This started to change with the launch of the Mega ST series, which came with a separate keyboard, a BLiTTER chip as standard (Available as an upgrade to existing ST machines) and an expansion port. But with the exception of the BLiTTER chip, there was no real enhancement or departure from the original ST launched a few years earlier, any changes were cosmetic at best.

A prototype EST machine was shown in a German computer magazine, though quite what this machine was is not really clear as any information was just names of proposed new chips and a possible 68020 processor. To make things worse, by this time Commodore had released the Amiga 500, which adopted a similar case style to the STfm and had improved graphics and sound over the ST. By Christmas 1988, the ST was still outselling the Amiga in Europe, but not by much. While at launch the ST was half the price of the Amiga with twice as much RAM, by 1988 the STfm was only a little cheaper that the Amiga and had its processor clocked slightly faster, but RAM was the same and even the base level Amiga 500 had an expansion slot, something only available on the Mega ST.

By the summer of 1989, the Amiga was outselling the ST in most places, Atari had to act fast or they would be left behind. Rumours were starting about an enhanced computer with 214000 colours and digital sound which was to be launched alongside a high end 68030 based UNIX server and a 68020 ST compatible machine. There was also the ABAQ transputer workstation and the STacy laptop, but no firm news on what was going to happen to the ST series.

Then in November 1989, Atari revealed the STe at the TT030. While the STe took the original ST and improved upon the hardware, many felt it had been cut back so it would not outshine the TT030. Both machines had 4096 colours and 8 bit stereo digital sound, though the STe screen resolutions and available colours on screen were no different to the ST's that were already available. The TT030 had some extra screen modes, an industry standard VME expansion bus, built in SCSI hard drive and an interesting modular box design, but it did not have the enhanced joystick ports or the BLiTTER chip of the new STe.

Considering how long Atari had supposedly been working on the STe, many were disappointed by what was finally released. While there was now hardware scrolling, enhanced colour palette, digital sound and easy memory upgrades, its implementation was not ideal and at best it matched rather than beat the now dominant Amiga. Worse still, the machine was not due to launch until 1990, but managed to sneak unannounced into the retail channels during Christmas 1989, which caused chaos when it was discovered that one of the games shipped in the pack would not work on the new machine at all, while a few of the others had problems.

The TT030 was criticized too, it was to be a 16MHz machine, which would have been fine if launched in 1988, but in 1989 or 1990 this was not considered fast enough. Atari 'cludged' the machine to work at 32MHz, which appeased many, though in truth this too was quite slow by 1990. While the processor ran at 32MHz, the board was still running at 16MHz as many of the components would not work properly at the faster speed. As if that wasn't bad enough, some high end professional applications failed to work, including Cubase, Creator and Notator MIDI applications and 1st Word Plus. For the first year of its life, the TT030 flagship failed to sell in the quantities Atari would have liked, though a number of machines were bought by NASA. The STe's woe's had not stopped either with the discovery of a faulty DMA chip that corrupted data saved to hard drives. While Atari made a replacement chip available, this plus the reports of compatibility problems that were still arising did nothing to help the machine sell, and as a result software that took advantage of the STe hardware were nowhere to be seen.

By the end of 1990, the STe had failed to make a dent in sales of the Commodore Amiga 500, however Cubase was now working on the Atari TT030 and a new Mega STE had been announced. 2 new portable machines were also announced, the STylus and the ST Book, though these would not be available until mid 1991. At the same time, rumours of a new 68030 based home computer were beginning to circulate, a machine with the codename of Sparrow, could this be the awaited Amiga killer?
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Re: The life and times of the Atari ST series - Malcolm Ramage

Post by exxos » Mon Dec 11, 2017 11:19 am

PART 3:

Crowning glory, fading twilight...

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By the end of 1990, reading between the lines now you can clearly see the first signs of Atari being in disarray internally. The STe launch had been horrendously mishandled, the TT030 had been hacked to run faster due to criticism and to top it all a batch of STe computers had made it into the retail channels with a faulty DMA chip that could corrupt data on attached hard drives. This was not the best way to launch a machine designed to rival the Commodore Amiga, but worse than that, there were persistent rumors of a machine in development with over 244,000 colours, which many people had assumed would be the STe.

But Atari were still developing the current ST line and announced some interesting new products for release in 1991. These included the Mega STe to replace the now decidedly underpowered Mega ST, the ST Book to replace the STacy laptop, and a curious piece of hardware known as the STylus, an ST machine based around a pen interface. At the same time it was also announced that Atari were developing new games consoles and that a new version of the Lynx colour handheld games device. The games consoles were called Panther and Jaguar, the former was a 32 bit system while the latter was a 64 bit system. Panther was to be launched first with Jaguar a few years later.

While the outside world saw these devices being announced, inside the labs of Atari, a couple of STe computers had been butchered and their processors removed. The processors were replaced with a board containing not 1, but 2 processors, a Motorola 68030 and a Motorola 56000 Digital signal Processor, the codename for the board was Sparrow. This was to be a test bed for what was going to be a new generation of home computers and was in part done to see how feasible such a dual processor like this was in the ST's architecture.

In 1991, the Mega ST was finally retired and replaced with the Mega STe, though it's launch was delayed until the latter half of the year. But when the machine did arrive it had a few surprises in store, the option of a built in SCSI drive, high density floppy drives and a CPU clocked at 16MHz, double the speed of all previous ST machines, and it came housed in the same style case as the TT030, but in ST grey rather than TT white. The Mega STe also inherited the TT's VME expansion bus and a new version of the ST operating system, bringing many of the TT's operating system enhancements to the ST line.

Bob Gledow of Atari UK was more and more becoming the media face of Atari in the magazines and he was usually the first person to be contacted once a new rumour was heard. However the disarray in Atari's US headquarters would catch him out several times during the 1990's. Towards the end of summer in 1991, Bob announced the imminent release of the Atari Panther, which would be available in time for Christmas. Everything was ready to go, including the assembly plants in the far east and without any warning at all the week after the Panther was announced, it was canceled in favor of the Jaguar. Bob was also caught out by sudden changes in product naming, taking to the magazines about the up and coming STylus while Atari US were announcing a name change for the machine to the ST Pad.

The end of 1991 had Sam Tramiel showing an early prototype of the new computer codenamed Sparrow. It looked like an Atari STe with a darker case and darker keys. No firm specifications were announced but this did not stop people speculating on what the new machine may be capable of. Colour pallets of 262,144 colours or 16,777,216 colours were regularly mentioned, along with CD quality sound and a speed of either 16MHz or 32MHz from either a 68020, 68030 or 68040 processor. As no official specifications were released, the collective Atari community imagination went wild. Trouble was, as the new machine was breaking cover in the press, this slowed sales of the existing machines, after all, who wants yesterdays model when tomorrows model is just around the corner?

Just as the Christmas issues of the Atari press were being completed, the official specifications were announced for the new wonder machine, which was now known as the Falcon030. It was to have 8 channel 16 bit sound with up to 50KHz recording and playback, 16MHz MC68030 with MC56001 DSP, built in IDE for optional internal hard drives, SCSI II for external devices, colour pallet of 262,144 colours with 'True colour' mode, BLiTTER chip and enhanced screen modes, along with enhanced operating system and memory options of 1MB, 4MB or 14MB. Considering what some had been imagining the machine was a disappointment, but for most it was just the machine for Atari's fight back in the home computer market, however the machine would not be available for 12 months. The news was printed and the only thing it did was hurt sales of the current range even more.

1992 brought feverish discussion on the imminent arrival of the Falcon, the ST Book and the ST Pad/STylus as well as discussion on the announced Jaguar 64 bit games system. Atari released information regarding the new systems on a regular basis and announced that the Falcon was to be the first of a new series of computers. While the 68030 model would be released in 1992, an enhanced 68040 model would be released in 1993. The prototypes in ST style cases were shown to the press, who were assured the released machine would be in a new case design befitting such a new and powerful home computer. However nothing else was seen.

August 1992 and production of the new Atari Falcon030 has started, the ST Book was released but the ST Pad/STylus was nowhere to be seen. Once again Bob Gledow assured the magazines that the ST Pad/STylus was on course to be delivered in time for Christmas just before Atari announced the machine was canceled.

Worse was to come. Shipments of the Falcon would be delayed due to a fault on the motherboards found during testing so it was no longer certain that there would be any of the new machines available to buy before Christmas, this happened just as Commodore released the new 68020 Amiga 1200, with a colour pallet of 16,777,216 colours and a sleeker design variation on the Amiga 500 design. Atari meanwhile had stuck to the ST design, making the case slightly lighter than the regular ST, but keeping the darker keys of the earlier prototypes. It was becoming clear something was wrong, from being profitable in the late 80's, Atari was just about breaking even or making slight losses. Then the unthinkable happened.

Struggling to get the Falcon030 into the retail channels and with unsold stocks of the STe in the supply chain, Atari re-released the STfm at a low entry level price of £99 in the UK and around $100 in the US. A number of the regional offices were closed, leaving only Atari UK and Atari Germany in Europe and Atari CA and Atari Mexico as functioning offices. In retrospect, the re-launch of the STfm was a last ditch attempt to raise funds and remove Atari's unused inventory of legacy spares for the ST range. While it was billed as Atari's attempt to take on the consoles with the argument that you could have a full computer for less than the price of a console, the truth was that the consoles had better hardware and as a result better games than the STfm could do. All the release of the STfm did was to add more stock to the already clogged retail channels and confuse any potential ST series purchasers.

A small number of Falcons made it into Europe in time for Christmas 1992, along with a small number of ST Book portables. Atari as it turned out had no money for marketing the new machine, so it was left to the distributors to create an advertising campaign to try and show off the new machines multi-media abilities. This resulted in a confusing series of adverts that told you nothing at all about the machines capabilities.

By February 1993 the Falcon030 was available and Atari were saying a new case design was in the works while also talking about the up and coming Falcon040, however what Atari were not saying was that the 040 machine had already been canceled and while there were a few prototype case designs for the new 030 machine, it too had been canceled. Internally all efforts were focusing on the Jaguar, anything else was to be canceled. Only around 1000 ST Book machines had been made, which was a shame as it was the smallest, lightest laptop available at that time and had features that are only now being matched by the new generation MacBook air machines with an instant on from hibernation and long battery life.

By mid 1993 Atari had announced that they would be pulling out of the home computer market. All computer production had stopped and once all current stocks had dried up, there would be no more machines available. Once again Bob Gledow stepped up and said that if there was a definite order for a couple of thousand machines then production would be seriously considered, however there were no spares to build such machines in Atari's inventory and no funds to buy them in the first place. Atari were betting everything on the Jaguar and could not afford for it to fail. After releasing the ST in 1985, all computer production at Atari was now over.

Atari launched the Jaguar towards the end of 1993 in time for Christmas, however IBM who had been contracted to manufacture the new console, could not keep up with the demand. Atari hinted that a new home computer based on the new hardware could be released in the future, but this would never materialise. Compared to the hardware of the time, the Jaguar looked impressive, but Saga and Nintendo were preparing new hardware and many people were looking to see what they would come up with, even though this new hardware was at least another year away at best. Then the unthinkable happened...

1994 and Sony announced the Playstation and while there was still interest in Atari's console, a lack of new games slowed sales. Sony were announcing that they had various developers working on the Playstation and that there would be a number of titles available on the day of launch, trouble was the launch catalogue was larger than Atari's entire Jaguar catalogue after a year on the market. 1994 also saw the Falcon reborn under the C-Lab brand after they reached a licensing deal with Atari to build and market the machine to the professional musician. This as it turned out was too little too late as the PC and Macintosh had become both faster and cheaper, and were capable of more than the Falcon could do. C-Lab battled on with the Falcon until 1995 when both the company and the machine vanished.

In 1996 Jack Tramiel returned to the helm of Atari after his son Sam was taken ill. Seeing there was nothing that could be done to save the company, he negotiated and signed a reverse merger deal with a small hard drive company called JTS, who promptly started breaking up and selling their new acquisition, which was in breach of the deal they signed. Atari as a hardware designer, innovator and manufacturer was gone.

It was not the end of the ST line that was a betrayal, it was the public front that all was well and progressing when the research and development labs were already shut, never to re-open. It was the devaluing of new hardware by announcing it before it was ready, or releasing it without warning when stocks of its predecessor ran out. By announcing hardware and then canceling it when it was about to go into production, or showing hardware that would never see the light of day. In Jack Tramiel Atari found a savior but sadly his son Sam did not have the same business instinct. Little was spent on advertising and sometimes hardware was not launched when it was available, while other hardware was launched when it was not ready. For example, Atari had the Lynx handheld hardware ready for launch a year before they actually did launch it, only showing the hardware when Nintendo started showing developers the GameBoy. Atari had the better hardware, btu Nintendo spent money marketing the device and getting developers on board and as a result, more people bought the GameBoy. At the same time, they launched the STe without testing the software sold with the machine for incompatibilities which then made Atari look bad when some of the bundled software had problems running on the machine.

Ultimately Atari abandoned the computer market in 1992 by not providing any marketing for the Falcon, though as a community we were lucky the Falcon was ever launched at all. Atari wanted to close the computer departments in mid 1992, however they had talked themselves into releasing the Falcon, but the compromise was that it was an incomplete machine, putting 32 bit hardware onto a 16 bit bus. But we should also be grateful because of Atari had not been so talkative about the Falcon during the last 12 months of development, we may well have never seen it launched at all.
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